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Wayne State University's New President

Dr. M. Roy Wilson comes with impeccable credentials and an unprecedented salary and benefits package. Will he be worth it?

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Photo by Carl Jones

As Dr. Masao Roy Wilson contemplated becoming Wayne State University's president, he considered being a Detroiter.

Wilson, a Harvard Medical School-trained ophthalmologist and researcher, interviewed with administrators and conversed with faculty just as he would for any academic job search. But during his Wayne State interview process, he asked to spend time with the university's most important partner—the city of Detroit.

The looming city bankruptcy didn't scare Wilson, and he was forewarned of Detroit's infamous crime and reputation as the "Dirty D." He constantly moved around cities as a youth, so he is comfortable adjusting to different environments and people. And after all, he was born in Japan, home to Tokyo—a Godzilla of a city when compared to Detroit. But saying "yes" to the Motor City was about feeling things out.

"I spent a weekend here just so I can get a better feel for what the university was like, what the city was like," says Wilson, 59. "I did a lot of walking. I walked miles and miles and miles that weekend, browsing the neighborhoods, browsing the town … talking to different people in the streets."

Walking around, he was impressed with the momentum and investment in Detroit's Midtown district and was reminded why Detroit is famous.

He heard the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was good. He watched finishing touches being made on the developing Whole Foods store. And he noticed vibrant restaurants such as Seva Detroit and Rodin (a potential hot spot for Wilson—a professed wine lover), hip art galleries and the Detroit Institute of Arts, where its collection of American paintings ranks third in the nation.

"I saw a city in transition, particularly in the Midtown area. An area on an upswing," he notes. "It seemed like a tipping point had been reached where enough people have decided this is worth investing in; this is worth saving."

Wilson, who began his term as Wayne State's 12th president on Aug. 1, hopes that day will mark a new era of leadership that increases the university's research work and student graduation rates and bolsters community relations.

Detroit, like Wayne State, has experienced formidable challenges. And Wilson plans to be a lightning rod in the city's rebirth and the renaissance of Wayne State University, the state's third largest university with 29,000 students and more than 370 academic programs.

Wilson's prior experience at urban universities as a university administrator and background as a top national physician and researcher set him apart from 63 applicants for the presidential post, says Gary S. Pollard, vice chair of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.

"Those were the kinds of attributes that we were looking to find," Pollard, also the presidential search committee chair, explains. "It was a great fit. … Because of his knowledge of research, we have someone who has the insight to help us get the really good research grants for Wayne State and metropolitan Detroit."

Wilson comes to Wayne State from the National Institute of Minority Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he served as deputy director for strategic scientific planning and program coordination since 2012.

An accomplished researcher, Wilson's work on glaucoma and blindness has focused on people in West Africa and the Caribbean. He also has conducted extensive medical research in urban American communities. Best Doctors, Inc. named him one of America's best doctors for 14 consecutive years, and he is former acting president and chair of the board of directors for the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.

The 'Right Fit'

The opportunity to lead Wayne State prompted Wilson to leave his government job behind. As the one-time chancellor of the University of Colorado and former chair of the University of Colorado Hospital's board of directors, Wilson says he received offers to return to academia—but would only do it if the position were "the right fit."

He wanted to return to academia at a public urban university invested in its community, with a high level of research activity and a medical school.

"I wanted an institution that really meant a lot to the community it was part of—and was working in sync with—the community it was part of, and was able to contribute to that community and improve it," says Wilson, who also served as the dean of the school of medicine and vice president for health services at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. "I think Wayne State has that type of reputation. It's part of its mission."

Kim Trent, a member of WSU's board of governors, says Wilson will be a good president because he respects the university's commuter student population and urban mission.

"This is a choice for him," Trent says of Wilson's move to Detroit. "He is passionate about coming to an urban campus and making a difference. He didn't leave anywhere without a stellar reputation. That's the mark of someone who works with the mark of integrity."

Wilson says Wayne State's role as a major educational institution and anchor in the metro Detroit also was a draw.

Detroit is "a city that is on the rise," Wilson says, adding that he will evaluate leadership opportunities and "try to do things that are most helpful to the city, where I can contribute the most."

Increasing Graduation Rates

Wilson knows Detroit's potential for growth is connected to educating its citizens. That's why increasing Wayne State's retention and graduation rates are a top priority for him.

In 2010, the Education Trust reported 43.5 percent of Wayne State's White students graduate within six years compared to 9.5 percent of Black students. That means only one of 10 Black students graduate from the university within six years.

"Perhaps highest on my priority list is getting the graduation rate up. We don't want students to come in and just take a semester or two of classes and just drop out," Wilson says.

He plans to examine how other colleges and universities have increased graduation rates and duplicate best practices at Wayne State. Adding more advisers and support programs—especially those that identify students who may potentially drop out—are steps he may take to retain students.

Wilson's fervor for bolstering WSU's graduation rates made him a good presidential candidate, Trent says.

"I don't think anyone on our campus is satisfied with our retention and graduation rates," Trent says. "Roy seems to have a passion for coming up with some solutions. We recognize that's something that needs to be addressed fairly quickly."

Increasing research productivity at Wayne State also is a priority for Wilson.

"I hope that in the next five years there will be a lot of different programs we currently don't have now in relation to research that will have direct benefits to the community," Wilson says.

Charles J. Parrish, president of the American Association of University Professors' Wayne State University chapter, says increasing research at the university should be a priority for Wilson.

"A university president can't do just one thing. What he has to do is figure out how to marry the role of Wayne State as an opportunity university and a research university," says Parrish, who also is a political science professor. "He has to do that early on."

Wilson also wants to recruit more students and "make Wayne State a destination place."

But the most urgent need Wilson will handle is the graduation gap. He's firmly committed to increasing graduation rates at the urban university because Wilson—who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an African-American father who was in the military—says education opened opportunities for him that he wants students at Wayne State to have.

"There weren't too many kids from my high school that went to college. I could have gone in a very different direction easily," says Wilson, who went to high school in the Washington, D.C. area. "I want to make sure that other individuals that have that inner drive to be educated and be a better person just have the opportunity to advance to the best of their abilities."

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